Two Allina hospitals in Anoka County have fired 32 employees for improperly accessing the medical records of patients who were hospitalized in March in the wake of a massive drug overdose at a party in Blaine.

On Thursday, Allina fired 28 employees at Unity Hospital in Fridley and four employees at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, according to spokesman David Kanihan.

He said an investigation found that the employees had accessed the electronic hospital records of certain patients without a legitimate medical reason to do so. "We have a very strict zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing," Kanihan said Friday.

Eleven teenagers and young adults were hospitalized, and one died, after overdosing on a synthetic drug at the party March 17.

Timothy Lamere, 21, of Blaine, is accused of buying and supplying the synthetic drug that led to the incident. Trevor Robinson, 19, of Coon Rapids, died March 17. Lamere is charged with felony third-degree murder. He remains in jail in lieu of $300,000 bail, and his next pre-trial hearing is scheduled for May 23.

Kanihan said Allina has the ability to track whenever an employee accesses a patient's electronic medical records. Because the drug overdoses were a "high-profile case," he said, hospital officials conducted a review and determined that 32 employees had viewed the patient records without permission.

He would not identify what types of employees were involved, except to say that they worked in patient care, or speculate on their motives for examining the records.

"These people have a legitimate role in accessing electronic medical records in general -- just not for these patients," he said. Kanihan declined to talk in detail about the investigation.

Audits are routine

Allina's action is unusual in the number of employees and the severity of the discipline, according to Lawrence Massa, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association. But hospitals regularly audit employee use of electronic medical records and impose a range of disciplinary actions, Massa added. "They're making sure the employees have a right and a reason to know what's going on with that patient.''

A more typical incident, he said, would involve one or two employees. Such breaches generally stem from innocent curiosity, Massa added. "They're unaware that they're violating a federal statute, which is something we work hard to prevent.''

Federal law provides strict protection of privacy in patient medical records. In 2007, Park Nicollet Clinic suspended more than 100 employees for violating privacy laws, primarily by tapping into the electronic records of friends or relatives without permission.

Kanihan said that all Allina employees go through "compliance training" about the importance of protecting patient privacy, and that they are told that violating the rules could cost them their jobs.

"This is not the first time anything like this has ever happened," Kanihan said. He said Allina has handled previous cases the same way, though he did not say how many have lost their jobs. "We take our obligation to protect patient privacy very seriously," he said.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384